From the Front Lines to the Computer Screen:
Battlefield Blogs and the Gameification of the Iraq War
Francesca Marie Smith
On March 19, 2008, people around the world marked the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq with mixed emotions; while politicians such as President George W. Bush argued that the war had been both necessary and beneficial, countless other voices rose in a fervor of protest, crystallizing the tumultuous responses to the war that had festered since its inception. The recent Iraq War has been arguably one of the most controversial wars in history, often compared to the war in Vietnam in terms of its ability to arouse vociferous dissent amongst Americans and foreigners alike. Aside from the numerous concerns voiced by those outside of the battlegrounds, however, the Iraq War has also had a notable effect on the soldiers themselves, many of whom, much as during the war in Vietnam, are unsure of the ethicality of their actions. Indeed, just as the Vietnam War illuminated the grim realities of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the Iraq War has taken its own toll on soldiers’ morale: Recent statistics reveal that five U.S. soldiers attempt suicide every day, yet that number was less than one soldier per day before the Iraq War began (CNN.com, 2008). Clearly, U.S. soldiers in Iraq have been placed in a difficult position, pragmatically and professionally required to defend themselves and carry out orders for a war that often seems unjustified, immoral, and actively condemned by a large part of society.
If the Iraq War has forced U.S. troops to face unprecedented moral complexities, however, modern technology has also provided them with a way to work through these issues in a revolutionary fashion: blogging. Blogging, or the act of writing a “web log” of one’s activities, opinions, and ideas, has enjoyed tremendous popularity over the past several years, with scholars and media commentators alike noting that these blogs have changed the way we express ourselves, learn information, and create a sense of community (see Kuhn, 2007, for a discussion of these blogging functions and their ethical implications). For soldiers in Iraq, many of the communicative elements intrinsic to blogging may be incredibly attractive. For example, at a practical level, blogs are simple to produce and easy to read, allowing soldiers to keep in touch with family and friends back home while also making new friends and establishing an online community of supporters and fellow soldiers. Blogs also allow for the creation of an online persona, or a semi-authentic voice that can protect a soldier’s anonymity while still allowing him or her to establish an identity and ethos with which to share stories, express opinions, and work through personal struggles in the public eye. Unlike in past wars, when soldiers relied on carefully written letters to update select family members and friends, blogs provide a swifter, more easily accessible, public expression of their lives, bringing the front lines to life for countless viewers around the world who can now follow along on their computer screens.
These unique features of the Iraq War combine to create a fascinating case study for rhetorical criticism, particularly in terms of the communication of the U.S. soldiers who have taken part in the conflict; in short, soldiers have unprecedented psychological and ethical issues to manage because of the war (CNN.com, 2008; Ricks, 2007), and new communication technology has allowed them to share this process with the world at large (and potentially alter the ways in which their readers view the war, as well). Such a complex rhetorical situation thus invites the following research question: How do United States soldiers negotiate and communicate in their personal blogs the complex ethical issues surrounding the Iraq War? In order to answer this question, I will begin with an exploratory case study of one such battlefield blog, entitled Armor Geddon. Next, I will lay a philosophical foundation from which to analyze the ethicality of such communication based on the system of situational ethics espoused by Saul Alinsky. Then, I will evaluate the ethical strategies utilized in Armor Geddon utilizing Alinsky’s model. Finally, I will conclude with a summary of findings, their implications, limitations of the study, and directions for further research.
Case Study: Armor Geddon
As with the introduction of any new communicative medium, the establishment of blogging as a viable outlet for U.S. soldiers’ communication allows for two separate possibilities: Either soldiers will continue to write traditional “letters home,” but simply post them in this new format, or they will actually change the content of their missives in accordance with the unique features of the so-called “blogosphere” (or community of blogs). A large number of blogs (such as Boots on the Ground, posted by a blogger known only as Kevin) frequently follow the first pattern, with comments like “I am doing ok. I lost another good friend recently. He will be sorrowly [sic] missed” and “no time to dwell on that, we have to keep our heads in the game and stay focused” offering brief, general descriptions of the important events of life in Iraq, with minimal commentary alongside them (2005). Other bloggers, like Jason Christopher Hartley (2003), use their blogs to post pictures of their everyday lives, just as soldiers in wars past might tuck a few snapshots into an envelope to send to a family member or loved one. Other blogs, however, utilize the blog format in a decidedly different fashion, taking advantage of the medium’s public nature to publish their own account of the war, providing for the first time publicly available, nearly instantaneous, extensive documentation of the front lines from the perspective of those actually in combat. Such a direct portal into the grim realities of an already contentious war has the capacity to alter the public’s view of warfare in ways that have arguably never before been available.
Armor Geddon, written by Neil Prakash, is an example of one such blog that capitalizes on the unique blogging medium, publicly painting a picture of the Iraq War from the viewpoint of an actual U.S. tank platoon leader. What makes Armor Geddon so particularly fascinating, however, is that Prakash does not use the blog to provide outraged or even defensive commentary regarding the war based on his privileged position (such as Boots on the Ground and other blogs have chosen to do at select moments, in a nod to the common tendency for blogs to be an outlet for political opinions). Instead, Prakash’s blog provides an unbelievably detailed narrative of his combat operations with commentary (both from characters within the action and from his own external reflections) that serves to minimize the perceived negativity of the front lines; in fact, it turns the entire war into more or less a game. I refer to this genre of wartime rhetoric exemplified in Armor Geddon as gameification, or more specifically gameification blogging.
Gameification blogging merits attention for a variety of reasons. First, such blogging exhibits an intriguing sort of justification for the war, more or less effacing its ethical complexities (rather than directly addressing them) as U.S. soldiers ostensibly struggle to deal with the morality of their behavior. Second, this perspective has the capacity to influence public perception of the war, spreading this videogame mentality to millions at home forming their own opinions about the legitimacy of U.S. military operations. Finally, these strategies of gameification add further nuance to growing concerns (voiced especially by politicians such as Hillary Clinton) regarding the influence of videogames, particularly violent ones, on recent generations. With the U.S. soldiers currently in Iraq coming in large part from a generation thoroughly inundated with videogames, the tendency to deal with complex moral difficulties by reverting to gameification seems understandable, yet also worthy of ethical analysis.
For the purposes of this study, I chose to focus on the most recent entry posted on Armor Geddon (found at this site), which is a stunningly extensive description of combat operations published on October 4, 2005. The entry, entitled “12-13 November: Make Way for the Cavalry,” consists of more than 30 pages when printed, and has elicited 70 comments to date from supporters all across the blogosphere who have encouraged and complimented Prakash’s writing. This particular entry seems to serve as the most recent installment of an ongoing narrative detailing Prakash’s various missions; in general, it seems to be representative of Prakash’s typical first-person gameification narrations.
Although there is no way of ascertaining the authenticity of Prakash’s descriptions, they appear to be written from his own perspective as detailed notations of his everyday experiences in Iraq (a notion bolstered by other entries on the site that suggest he has had to modify some of his descriptions for security reasons). His online profile has been viewed over 23,000 times, suggesting a fairly sizeable viewership of the blog, and consequently the potential for thousands of readers to be influenced by what they perceive to be a legitimate account of Iraqi warfare. Prakash also lists some specific information about himself on the site, establishing his ethos as a soldier and spokesperson for the war: He lists his primary locations as Syracuse, NY and Germany, notes that he graduated from Liverpool High School in 1998 and from Johns Hopkins University in 2002 (with a degree in neuroscience) and completed his military training in 2003. He enjoys traveling, likes the films Tommy Boy and Back to the Future, and began his account with the popular blog site Blogger in December of 2004. Some of Prakash’s blog entries contain the occasional picture or video of the author, as well. Such details of his life grant authenticity to his writings and allow the otherwise distanced viewer to feel a sense of communicative intimacy with the author; even without ever having met Prakash face to face, his readers can feel as though they know him, to an extent, and can therefore trust his accounts.
The current study is thus proposed as an initial, exploratory case study of Armor Geddon, with the intention of laying the groundwork for further examination of the potentially larger phenomenon of gameification and gameification blogging. Certainly, there are limitations to this type of research, primarily because the results of any analysis presented here cannot be generalized at the outset to an entire corpus of soldiers’ communication. Nevertheless, even without quantitative results, or even representativeness, I suggest that an in-depth critical look at Armor Geddon is an instructive and valuable activity, particularly in light of the extensive (and popular) entry chosen for analysis here. This research therefore seeks simply to highlight and explicate the intriguing ethical choices made by a soldier whose words have already reached thousands, and which may both inspire and represent others in his unique position as a U.S. soldier fighting an uncertain war in Iraq. Such focused, groundbreaking analysis can then pave the way for more extensive evaluation of soldiers’ communication in the future in order to determine how pervasive the tactic of gameification has in fact become.
Prakash’s Armor Geddon employs three major rhetorical strategies throughout the narration: dehumanization, dramatization, and explicit gameification. While much of the entry analyzed here consists of fairly straightforward narration, detailing events in a temporally ordered fashion with dialogue and description as needed, these three strategies nevertheless appear time and again laced throughout the narrative. In fact, a close reading of the text reveals that essentially all of Prakash’s rhetoric serves in some way to support one or more of these strategies, particularly gameification: Even the common wartime rhetorical strategies of dehumanization and dramatization, when placed in the context of Armor Geddon, feed into the larger umbrella category of gameification. In other words, Prakash filters his experience of the Iraq War through a lens of gameification, utilizing the traditional practices of dehumanization and dramatization as well as a uniquely explicit gaming rhetoric in doing so.
The process of linguistic dehumanization in wartime is by no means new (see, for example, Ivie, 1980). Particularly in American war rhetoric, the process of painting the other as savage, enemy, or terrorist is a compelling force in justifying aggression, for language choices that objectify or minimize the value of an individual strips that otherized being of human dignity and ethical value. Therefore, labels such as “zip” (which literally signifies “nothing”) used for Vietnamese people, “pig” used to denigrate police officers and a variety of ethnic groups, “kraut” to signify Germans, and countless other monikers have functioned throughout history as more than just derogatory titles; they in fact remove their referent from the realm of humanity and value, equating them with objects or animals and denying them any claim to compassion.
Unsurprisingly, Armor Geddon is rife with such examples of implicitly dehumanizing language. Although euphemistic expressions such as “liberating” and “clearing rooms” frequently serve to mask the grim realities of the homicide that takes place, Prakash also uses more direct language that helps to identify, yet also marginalize, those whom he wishes to justify killing. First and foremost, Prakash refers to opposing soldiers simply as “the enemy” 19 times throughout the entry, far more frequently than he calls them “guys” or any other human term. Such a value-laden label clearly falls in line with our typical understanding of right and wrong: The enemy is not an equal, valuable participant in warfare with legitimate concerns and rights, but they are rather the homogenous, evil other that is to be destroyed. Even more bluntly, Prakash refers to “bad guys” in the blog, suggesting that they are simply “sitting ducks” that are to be shot dead. Only once in the entry does Prakash refer to an “Iraqi,” and only twice does he simply label opposition forces as “men” like his own comrades. The rest of the time, they are “insurgents” or even “fucking insurgents,” as well as “terrorists,” once more reducing the enemy soldiers to an essential description of their rebellious and dangerous behavior; after all, it is far simpler to kill someone who is defined as existing purely to create terror and negativity than it is to kill a real, complex human. Particularly when such labels are contrasted with “friendlies,” or supporters of the U.S. military, the murder of the Iraqi “bad guys” seems justified and even necessary.
Of course, Armor Geddon also contains a substantial amount of more traditional, blunt pejorative terms. For example, Prakash refers to one Iraqi fighter as both an “asshole” and an “idiot,” and calls another opposition fighter a “fucker.” Perhaps the most disturbing example of explicit objectification appears when Prakash describes the somewhat eccentric behavior of a fellow soldier named Dawes, who recently killed his first insurgent. Shortly after his first kill, egged on by Prakash, Dawes exited his tank and approached a dead Iraqi body on the ground. According to Prakash, “Dawes came around to the body and straddled it” before he “started pretending to hump the body while he was standing up and flipped both middle fingers at the corpse.” Such objectifying behavior is blatantly reminiscent of traditional rape, establishing a firm power differential between U.S. soldiers and their enemies. Even more interesting, however, is the response of Dawes’ U.S. companions, who “all laughed” and were “shocked” yet “amused” by his behavior. While Prakash was worried for Dawes’ safety, concerned that the body might be booby trapped, no concern was ever voiced about Dawes’ treatment of the Iraqi corpse. In fact, Dawes was thrilled to report that he “got some great pictures.”
In addition to dehumanizing the opposing forces, Prakash also reduces his fellow U.S. soldiers to a variety of labels that objectify them and, potentially, makes it easier to view them as dispensable. In this way, the grim reality of regularly losing friends and companions is softened, for it is far easier to simply lose a group of “crunchies” (or infantrymen wearing armor that, supposedly, crunches when the body is rolled over by a tank, according to Allison, 2003) than it is to mourn the loss of 10 or 20 comrades. Other soldiers are called “dismounts,” synecdochically reduced to a description of their job that denies them their humanity. Finally, as is common amongst military persons, a large number of soldiers and their commanders are referred to simply by call names and numbers, such as “Terminator 6,” “Phantom 6,” and “Red 6.” A commanding officer, for example, notes, “I think Ramrod 6 really hated that building.” Once again, by labeling these individuals at a level of abstraction slightly removed from their unique, human names, Prakash has made their lives (and deaths) more manageable and, at the same time, less relevant. For both enemies and allies alike, then, language choices throughout Armor Geddon serve to dehumanize individuals and render them “good” and “bad” players in a sort of game, objects that are easily lost and replaced, and tools of war that fall outside the scope of ethical consideration.
The rhetorical strategy of dramatization goes hand in hand with the dehumanization of narrative subjects, for once the author has distanced the reader from the humanity of the characters present, it is but a simple matter to reduce their story to an observable, sublime, seemingly fictional drama, just like a movie or videogame. This process of aesthetic sublimation, identified as “the sublime register” by Chouliaraki (2005) in her analysis of BBC footage of the most recent Iraq War, essentially effaces all human subjects from the picture. Instead, military operations are displayed as spectacular, dramatic, panoramic visual events with no real, human victims or persecutors. This process, naturally, stifles potential ethical questions regarding such military procedures, reducing the realities of human loss to a dramatic, yet distant, visual to be played out like a film on a screen.
The entirety of Prakash’s writing style contributes to this sense of dramatization, primarily through his use of narrative prose with highly descriptive, aesthetic visuals. For example, he details the events of one Iraqi evening as follows: “I looked around in the pitch black night. … The tanks and Bradleys looked like shadows, swallowing up any light from the stars. They were like ghosts.” Prakash describes the entirety of the operative in a similar, novelistic style, providing asides to describe characters or reflect on his own thoughts as needed (e.g., “There was no question in my mind that SGT P was the driving force in accomplishing that task”). His description of how a sergeant’s voice “faded and crackled” across the radio or how he “stared into the blackness until the sun rose” help to draw the reader in, painting an extremely descriptive scene in terms of physical sensations.
Beyond these aesthetic, sensory depictions, Prakash also relies on extreme, emotionally charged language to heighten the dramatic effects of his story (and, via this dramatization, reduce the account to an almost fictionalized saga). For example, he describes his fellow troops performing “something short of a miracle” and describes the look he will “never forget” seeing on another soldier’s face. Prakash also narrates the actions of fellow soldier Langford in extravagant style, explaining how he “went maniacal with his loader’s M240” as he “grabbed the handles of his gun mount and smashed down on the butterfly trigger with his thumbs.” Similarly, Prakash described how another soldier, Dawes, “scrambled like a madman right back where he came from.” Other events, such as a car bomb that detonated close to Prakash and his companions, are described in similarly hyperbolic terms: “Suddenly there was the loudest explosion I had heard thus far in the deployment. … In the sky, a giant brown donut cloud rose into the air.” This explosion, described as “the largest car bomb anyone had faced” in his sector, also led to similarly dramatic, extreme personal reflections. As Prakash puts it, “it was impossible not to take it personal [sic]. I knew the guy was hiding somewhere, armed and watching us. Just waiting to kill us and take our vehicle. I remember thinking, God, what the fuck? Why are they trying to kill me? We’re just here trying to help this goddamn country.” This occasional emotional gravity can be found in other comments throughout the blog, such as in Prakash’s nerve-wracking description of fingering the trigger of his gun, even while knowing that “in the closest of combat, even [his] .50cal was going to be useless.” Dialogue from the soldiers, like “Jesus Christ, SGT P. I didn’t think you guys were gonna make it” or the even more extreme “GET THE FUCK BACK ON YOUR TANK. GET AWAY FROM THAT THING!” serves to further augment the emotional intensity of the blog, creating a stylized, dramatic experience.
Finally, Prakash’s generous use of dialogue and sound effects completes the impression that his blog is serving as some sort of novel or script of a sublimely aesthetized war. His descriptions are rife with quoted dialogue, such as “Phantom 6, Red 6. We’ve left the LRP and are headed to your position.” More notably, Prakash uses onomatopoeia extensively throughout the blog, with 12 uses of “BOOM” (with varying numbers of exclamation points), but also other sounds such as “POP-POP-POP-POP,” “Click-Skrrrrrr-Ka-chunk,” “R-rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!,” and “CRACK! CRACK!” Just as in the dramatized (and generally fictionalized) war comics, games, and movies that we have seen time and again, Prakash’s account of “real” battlefield life comes complete with the stylized sound effects we expect from any dramatic production.
What is most intriguing about Prakash’s use of dramatization, however, is that for all its sensory and emotional intensity, it does not in fact serve to heighten the serious, ethically suspect, human reality of warfare. Instead, when combined with dehumanizing and gameifying strategies, this element of dramatization instead functions to remove the audience from the action. The text assuages the reader’s concerns for accuracy with the promise of eyewitness authenticity (as predicted by Chouliaraki, 2005), since we know that Prakash is an actual soldier who has supposedly lived through these events, yet it still presents the action in the exact same format we are used to seeing in fictionalized, sublime, aesthetic displays. This dramatic mimesis justifies the audience’s removed observance of the action, just as we might watch a film in a theatre; in short, we can recognize the beauty of the destruction, and are carried along by the intensity of the characters’ emotion, but we are in no way obligated to feel for these creatures that have been painted as mere inhuman parts of a simple, dramatic game throughout the entirety of the blog.
The theme of gameification runs throughout Armor Geddon, bringing the strategies of dehumanization and dramatization together in a cohesive, aesthetic representation of the battlefield as a gaming environment. Of course, many of the corollaries between violent videogames and actual warfare are not accidental; militaristic videogames regularly borrow language and concepts from actual battlegrounds. Therefore, it would be both circular and inaccurate to suggest that Prakash’s use of typical videogame concepts such as missions, enemies, and kill zones throughout the blog were in fact inspired by militaristic videogames. However, this correlation is not entirely irrelevant; it is still instructive to note that, by their very design, videogames and battlefields are already closely tied to one another, and many of today’s soldiers may have in fact learned these concepts from simulator videogames in their youth (see, for example, America’s Army: Operations, a first-person shooter game commissioned by the U.S. Army as a recruitment tool).
Many of the features of Armor Geddon that are most strikingly similar to videogame activity tend to reframe the military maneuvers in terms of strategies and plans (rather than life or death), competition over “getting kills,” and even acting out fantasies from childhood games. For example, at the most basic level, Prakash refers to the “easier” tasks of “being a hunter/killer section” and “having crunchies to clear rooms, different weapons and capabilities, [and] extra grunts to help pull security,” just as a player might amass objects and ally characters in a game. Prakash furthers the framing of battle as a strategy, like an athlete’s game plan, in his personal commentary: “Sweet. I love this plan already.” After being told to “shoot every single house you see,” Prakash comments, “This just got better … This plan is fucking beautiful. It had so many moving parts, yet it was so simple, even a child could understand it. And when properly executed, it was going to look like we had rehearsed it for years.” The language here refers to the simplicity and beauty of the plan, of course, but not its actual ramifications in terms of protecting or killing humans.
The competitive spirit of “getting kills” falls directly in line with the videogame mentality, as well. First of all, Prakash laments that his “rate of fire wasn’t as great as” those of his camerades. At one point, he was also “worried” that a sergeant friend “was going to miss the fight,” because, as he later describes, “when you’re not the one getting the kills, it feels like you’re missing out on the action.” He refers to this concern over gaining glory and metaphorical points multiple times throughout the blog, remarking that “of course [he] didn’t want to give up [his] spot and miss out on these kills.” At another part of his narrative, he regrets being so removed from the hand-to-hand combat: “Watching [the other soldiers] prepare to kick in the door and do the real man-to-man fighting filled me with a rush that I wanted to feel for myself. The fact that they were going to get up close and personal with the enemy was a source of pride that I wasn’t going to feel up here in my steel beast.” A final moment of competition appears in the comment, “How does it feel to have someone bust out in front of YOU and get all the kills!” As Prakash puts it, his group was “all still steamed about Avenger Company stealing [their] lane two days ago. But it hadn’t mattered because they didn’t kill anything … This was much sweeter. They watched as [Prakash’s team] hammered the dogshit out of this kill zone and everything in it.” A later comment even refers to “the booty [fellow soldiers] had collected,” referencing the traditional gaming practice of gaining money and other goods from dead enemies rather than reflecting on the loss of life. Although Prakash does digress briefly a small number of times to comment on the danger of the mission at hand, the overarching theme of his commentary is, succinctly, that he “wasn’t worried” about his safety and was instead more concerned with his kill count. As he puts it, “this was the stuff movies and video games were made of.” He continues, “We were living a scene that I played out in a sandbox with plastic tanks and G.I. Joes when I was six years old.” This comment sums up the entirety of his blog’s gameification: The battle has been reframed in terms of strategy and scoring points, obscuring the ethical realities of life and death.
Another theme of gameification running throughout Armor Geddon revolves around the fun and exciting appeal of warfare (and, specifically, the toys Prakash gets to play with in his line of work). Such commentary appeals to the nature of any boy (or girl) who has grown up with typical action movies, comics, and toys meant to glorify “cool” explosions, weapons like rockets and large guns, and superhuman abilities. For example, Prakash’s comrade SGT P notes of the soldiers’ thermal imaging device, “This is fucking awesome. I can see everything … Man I can’t believe how awesome this shit works.” He is “pumped as hell” at the tools the soldiers were given to use and, as Prakash comments, their technological prowess is “like a superpower.” Prakash later quotes a fellow soldier who excitedly exclaimed, “Check this shit out. Night vision!” The soldier then followed up by showing Prakash “a really cool rocket.” Other highlights include “flat paint” which “was cool,” “a giant fire ball” that was “cool as shit,” and the possibility of yet another “tremendous and wonderful explosion.”
Perhaps the most striking element of gameification found in Armor Geddon is embedded in the lighthearted, vulgar commentary provided by Prakash and his companions, which continue to reinforce the acceptability (and even fun) of their violent actions while further dehumanizing their Iraqi victims. For example, Prakash blithely notes that they “were having a grand old time in this turkey shoot” and, at one point, he was “extremely disappointed” at the thought of leaving because they “were just starting to have fun with the dead guy.” More explicitly, however, extensive use of expletives, labels such as “dude” and “motherfucker,” colorful commentary such as “what a goat fuck, sir” and positive evaluations like “YEAH! That was fucking awesome!” mirror exactly the sort of commentary one might hear in a room full of teenagers playing a videogame together or, as is increasingly frequent, over the Internet chat systems (such as Ventrilo and Xbox LIVE) that accompany popular fighting games such as World of Warcraft and Halo. Multiple instances of such lighthearted, supportive commentary appear throughout the text: One story, in particular, revolves around an ecstatic soldier “struggling to get the words out through his laughter” as he described an Iraqi who went “flying off the balcony” after a successful hit. His comrades were disappointed they missed out on the “front row seat” to the spectacle, which was alternately described as “fucking sweet” and “fucking awesome.” Similarly, soldiers call out to one another, laughing, at the “terribly amusing” scene of an Iraqi whose “ass [was] missing.” Another anecdote involves a laughing soldier describing the “funny” visual of a dog dragging around an Iraqi corpse. Finally, Prakash expresses his own irreverence by reveling in a “beautiful” event he can’t wait to tell his “grandkids when [he’s] old.” Specifically, he decided that there is “no better time to take a shit” than in the middle of a military maneuver, so proceeded to defecate with artillery fire falling all around him. Such irreverence, once more, masks the reality of the situation, instead making it no more frightening (and no less fun) than an evening of game play with friends.
Taken as a whole, these rhetorical strategies serve to obfuscate the gravity and danger of warfare while also preemptively silencing any potential concerns about the ethicality of the soldiers’ behavior. Dehumanization, while not unique to the genre of gameification blogging, sets the stage by rendering the characters at play irrelevant, mere objects to be disposed of as needed. Similarly, dramatization places these characters in a sublime, aesthetic landscape that is closely aligned with the fictional accounts of warfare to which we as audience members have become desensitized; we understand that these are characters, part of a visually stunning world of explosions and conquest in which good must prevail over evil, and these figures are supposed to be destroyed. Finally, the explicit strategies of gameification bring these elements together, placing the dehumanized, dramatic figures in a gaming environment in which cheerful “dudes” get to play with “cool” toys and perform “sweet” maneuvers, feeling “good” while they do so and even witnessing some hilarious scenes in the process. By essentializing the reality of the Iraq War as a mere game, Armor Geddon serves to justify the behavior of the U.S. soldiers by pretending that there are no ethical concerns. In other words, gameification is an amoralizing process; to be sure, such a process has likely accompanied all forms of warfare for centuries, but it has arguably taken a new (and, most importantly, public) shape in the context of modern culture. In a sublime world of one-dimensional characters and dehumanized objects where one simply carries out plans to gain points and have a good time, the moral features of life and death are not even allowed to enter into the picture.
Philosophical Foundation: Alinsky’s Situational Ethics
In order to best evaluate the ethical choices made by U.S. soldiers such as Prakash in describing their battlefield experiences, we can turn to a model of situational ethics proposed by Saul David Alinsky. Situational perspectives on ethics, in general, suggest that ethical choices must be made in light of specific and unique situational criteria. In other words, universal standards cannot be upheld in all cases; instead, the idiosyncratic context of the situation at hand must dictate what is right and wrong. While some ethicists are quick to criticize a situational framework, suggesting that an ethical perspective with no absolute ideals can be modified to justify any behavior, other scholars (such as Alinsky) recognize the relative nature of truth, value, and possibility. Therefore, an individual must take into account a variety of situational factors, such as communicator roles, audience roles, power differentials, available courses of action, and urgent requirements in order to evaluate the best (and, consequently, most ethical) solution in a given context.
Saul David Alinsky was a social activist and writer in the United States during the 20th century (for a thorough biography, see Horwitt, 1989). Born in Chicago, IL on January 30, 1909, he dedicated his life to activism and community organizing, helping the impoverished and disenfranchised rise up to gain their rightful place in society (Stone, 2003). He completed his undergraduate and postgraduate study at the University of Chicago, focusing on criminology in particular, and worked in the field of criminology for some time after (Stone, 2003). During World War II, he also undertook a variety of special assignments for the United States Federal Government, and even worked for the Illinois penitentiary system before ultimately devoting himself to helping underprivileged communities organize and gain power.
Alinsky is best known for an extensive ideology of radical community organizing that aimed to grant democracy, housing, health services, and economic security to impoverished communities such as the Irish-American ghetto “Back of the Yards,” Black communities in Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, and Rochester, Canadian Indians, Italian labor unions, and Chicano migrant workers (Stone, 2004). His advocacy championed the importance of organizing, not charity, which led him to found the Industrial Areas Foundation in 1939 to better facilitate community organizing (Stone, 2003). His work for social change was controversial, however, for he “taught powerless people how to use conflict and disruption to force authorities to make concessions” (Bailey, 1974, p. 1). Such a message drew mixed reactions, with many classifying him as a troublemaker requiring legal punishment while others upheld him as a hero of democracy and positive change. During one of his more extended periods of incarceration, Alinsky wrote his first book, entitled Reveille for Radicals (1969), which met with similarly varied reviews: Some welcomed his insistence on the importance of organization (rather than anarchy), while others viewed his methods as impractical and overly radical (Stone, 2003). Nevertheless, Alinsky continued to spread his message throughout the world. Shortly before his death, he produced the only other book he would author outlining his philosophy of community organizing: Rules for Radicals, published in 1971. Up until his death of a heart attack in 1972, Alinsky continued to work hard to effect positive communal change, particularly in America’s White middle class (Stone, 2003). Even after his death, his ideology has remained potent in shaping the views of those activists who wish to change the world as it is into the world that they wish it to be.
Alinsky’s work spans a variety of topics, some more relevant than others to the case of wartime communication. Indeed, much of Alinsky’s writing in both Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals revolves around the instruction of would-be organizers, inspiring them to utilize the primary tool of communication (and, ultimately, persuasion) to wrench power from the elite classes and place it firmly in the hands of the have-nots. Certainly, this pedagogical work designed for the community activist (including the 11 “rules” Alinsky outlined in the latter part of Rules for Radicals) is more or less inapplicable to the study of gameification blogging. However, Alinsky also wrote at length regarding the ethics of means and ends, arguing that we must act in a world where “everything … is relative and changing,” including truth and politics (1971, p. 11). As he stated, “the standards of judgment must be rooted in the whys and wherefores of life as it is lived, the world as it is, not our wished-for fantasy of the world as it should be” (Alinsky, 1971, p. 26). This outline of situational ethics is particularly appropriate to the case of Armor Geddon, for it explains that in certain situations, such as during times of war, that which we consider ethical may be vastly different from that which one removed from the situation might expect.
In the early pages of Rules for Radicals, Alinsky (1971) explicated 11 initial rules regarding the ethics of means and ends, paraphrased here in a somewhat truncated fashion (see pp. 26-47 of Rules for Radicals for the complete text). First, those removed from a situation have the luxury to be concerned with ethicality; conversely, those closest to the issue at hand are less likely to be concerned with the ethics of means and ends. Similarly, Alinsky’s second rule argues that the political standing of an individual will necessarily influence his or her judgments of ethicality. Third, in war, the end will nearly always justify any means. Fourth, judgment of a situation’s ethicality must be made with respect to the event’s chronological position, not from any other temporal reference point. Fifth, the more options available in a given situation, the greater the concern with the ethicality of those options. Sixth, the less important the ends, the more freedom one has to be concerned with the ethicality of the means. On a related note, the seventh rule suggests that, generally, success or failure is a strong determinant of the ethicality of means. Eighth, the prospect of imminent defeat or success will influence the morality of a given means; in other words, actions taken out of desperation to avert disaster will typically be seen as moral, whereas in the face of probable success the same actions may not be seen as ethical. Ninth, the opposition is likely to judge any effective tactic as unethical. Tenth, and perhaps most crucial for this study, “you do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments” (Alinsky, 1971, p. 36). Alinsky continued this line of reasoning, arguing that “moral rationalization is indispensable at all times of action whether to justify the selection or the use of ends or means” (1971, p. 43). Finally, the eleventh rule suggests that goals should be framed in terms of common values such as liberty, equality, the common good, or the pursuit of happiness.
Altogether, these rules argue strongly for the situationally defined nature of ethics: Our concern for the legitimacy of means and ends is shaped strongly by our contextual constraints, and, in the end, we make do with what is pragmatically possible and effective above all else. This message offers a powerful explanation for the ethical choices made by soldiers such as Neil Prakash in evaluating and communicating their experiences during the Iraq War. Specifically, rules one, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and ten all suggest that, in a situation like Prakash’s where an actor is thrust into a life-or-death situation in which he or she has little to no say in the maneuvers that are to be accomplished, the choices made must be rationalized in any way possible. Therefore, in light of Alinsky’s ideology of situational ethics, we can now return to an evaluation of Armor Geddon and the strategies of gameification, in order to answer the original research question and determine the ethical matrix underlying such tactics.
Evaluation: The Ethics of Gameification
Soldiers like Neil Prakash have been placed in a unique situation during the most recent Iraq War, with specific contextual conditions that, according to the canons of situational ethics, must be taken into account. To begin with, the war has been under essentially constant criticism since its inception in 2003, arguably even more so than the Vietnam War was. Activists, pundits, and even otherwise apathetic citizens have relentlessly denounced George W. Bush and his administration for lying, manipulating the American people, and spending exorbitant amounts on a war with no real justification beyond hegemony and greed. The costs of the war, both in terms of personnel casualties and monetary loss, have been tremendous, and (worst of all) seemingly with only minimal ethical rationale. Even with all of this public censure, however, U.S. soldiers are still obligated to follow orders, despite any ethical misgivings they may otherwise have. They are continually thrust into life-threatening situations, for previously unheard-of lengths of time, in which their fate rests firmly in their ability to carry out commands from above. Perhaps most interestingly, these soldiers are also more connected to the outside world than those in any other war have ever been, thanks to the extensive availability of Internet access and individual publishing outlets such as blogs. Consequently, the intensity and potential implications of the soldiers’ ethical dilemmas are augmented in at least two ways: Not only are soldiers more readily reminded of moral criticism from those around the world, they also have the opportunity to express their inner turmoil (or at least make a case for their ethicality) at an easily accessible, public level.
Under Alinsky’s model of situational ethics, recognizing the unique position of U.S. soldiers serving in the most recent Iraq War allows us a great deal of insight into the ethical intricacies of their behavior. As Alinsky’s ideology argues, those closest to the action, particularly those in dire straits with few options, do not in fact have the luxury of judging the ethicality of their behavior; instead, they simply must do what they have to do. However, as the Internet and other improved telecommunications systems continually reconnect such soldiers with those removed from the action (who do have the ability to more harshly judge its ethicality), they are bombarded with reminders that many feel what they are doing is wrong. Therefore, they face a dilemma: Their situation demands that they ignore the ethical complications of their situation, yet modern technology all but forces them into recognizing (and, arguably, responding to) such concerns of morality.
With this philosophical infrastructure in hand, we can thus return to the original research question: How do United States soldiers negotiate and communicate in their personal blogs the complex ethical issues surrounding the Iraq War? Based on Alinsky’s justification of limited moral perspective in times of war or political asymmetry, we can conclude that U.S. soldiers in Iraq are clearly following the first half of Alinsky’s tenth rule: “Do what you can with what you have” (1971, p. 36). As Alinsky would have predicted, evaluation or modification of their ethical choices is outside the soldiers’ hands, based on their professional and pragmatic obligations to follow orders and protect their lives. However, unlike in previous times of war, the pressure placed on these soldiers to morally resolve their actions is more pronounced then ever before. Therefore, the second half of Alinsky’s tenth mandate becomes crucial: “clothe it with moral garments” (1971, p. 36). As we have seen with Armor Geddon, the strategy of gameification is one way in which these soldiers have met these demands, resolving in their own minds and expressing to others an ethically innocuous situation.
Given the ethical principles under which soldiers like Prakash appear to be functioning, the strategies of dehumanization, dramatization, and gameification seem to be purposive, effective strategies in both negotiating and communicatively justifying their behavior. All three of these features, particularly taken together, efface and normalize the otherwise contentious ethical features of the Iraq War, neutralizing the question of morality from the outset and then presenting this ethically cleansed perspective for the world to see. Dehumanization, for example, functions to objectify those who would otherwise be victims, worthy of compassion and ethical value; this makes the ethical issue of human dignity and lives lost irrelevant, or at the very least less relevant. Dramatization frames the battlefield experience in a sublime, noble, aesthetic skin, allowing the reader to be caught up as an outside observer in a world so reminiscent of a fictionalized drama that we are desensitized to it, and also less likely to ethically judge it. Most notably, gameification serves to place the situation in a comfortable, amoral setting; by filtering the grim realities of warfare through the simple, familiar lens of childhood (video)games, blogs like Armor Geddon remove any morally charged components from their life. Instead, the audience is carried along through strategies, “cool” toys and effects, and missions during which (we already understand) points are to be scored, enemies are to be annihilated, and goals are to be completed without any concern for ethicality. Moreover, by recreating a jovial setting of camaraderie, fun, and irreverence, Prakash further intensifies the sense of gameification by drawing his readers into a world in which the soldiers are not bothered by their actions; why, therefore, should the reader be? All in all, these strategies attempt to strip the otherwise ethically dubious actions of U.S. soldiers in Iraq of any moral concern whatsoever; by making the situation seem normalized, lighthearted, irrelevant, and aesthetically pleasing, soldiers seek to circumvent an ethical discussion from the outset (since they are unable to appropriately engage in such a debate anyway), and share this ethically whitewashed view with the outside world.
Given this evaluation, it seems incumbent upon us as ethical analysts to at least briefly address a corollary to the original research question: We now know what strategies U.S. soldiers like Prakash use to justify their behavior, but is this communicative justification, in fact, ethical? To begin with, Alinsky would suggest that their evaluation is indeed appropriate, given their situation: The soldiers are left with essentially no options, so they simply must do the best they can and rationalize it after the fact. More interesting, however, is the question of whether their communication to the outside world can be considered ethical. In other words, beyond just analyzing the communication of their ethical choices, we can now address the ethicality of their communication choices.
In brief, it seems as though the choice to gameify their experience and express this interpretation to the world at large is not only ethical for U.S. soldiers, it is in fact necessary to help preserve their dignity and sanity. The outside world, removed enough from the action to have concern for its ethicality, may be quick to judge the soldiers’ behavior as unethical at first blush, and respond with harsh criticism in turn. With the increasing interconnectedness of those around the world, this criticism is not lost on soldiers in Iraq. With no other choice available to them, however, they must in some way try to justify the actions they are forced to carry out in order to avoid or minimize such harsh rebukes; if gameification is an effective justification, then, it is therefore an ethical communication choice under Alinsky’s situational perspective. According to Alinsky (1971), “all effective actions require the passport of morality” (p. 44); therefore, as U.S. soldiers undertake the only effective actions they can to protect themselves, they must seek to morally justify it to those who would otherwise judge in order to protect themselves from greater moral confusion and psychological trauma. Indeed, based on the principles of situational ethics as well as dialogical and other perspectives, it is in fact crucial for those removed from the action to be able to recognize the plight of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and, at the very least, allow them the opportunity to “clothe” their behavior with the most “moral garments” possible (Alinsky, 1971, p. 36). While such gameification may not render the realities of warfare any more objectively ethical, it can at least provide some solace to those forced into carrying out what seem to be atrocious acts; even as it seeks to mask the underlying problem, such gameification may in fact be, according to Alinsky, the only way for U.S. soldiers to retain a sense of moral dignity and avoid spiraling into the guilt and depression that has already plagued countless soldiers from both Vietnam and Iraq.
In order to interpret, rationalize, and communicate the ethicality of the most recent Iraq War, the author of battlefield blog Armor Geddon has relied on a variety of rhetorical strategies, namely dehumanization and dramatization to augment an overall gameification of U.S. soldiers’ experiences on the front lines. When filtered through a lens of Alinsky’s situational ethics, such tactics are understandable, effective, and ethical, as they allow soldiers with limited autonomy and moral freedom to preserve their dignity (and attempt to secure a “passport of morality” as per Alinsky, 1971, p. 44) by making the best of what they are essentially obligated to do. Therefore, both the soldiers’ actions and their subsequent communicative justification are rendered ethical by necessity, at least from a situational perspective.
What makes Armor Geddon a particularly fascinating subject for study, however, is the unique situation of soldiers like Prakash. While the United States has fought in controversial wars before, the new complications (and advantages) afforded by the practice of blogging brings concomitant new importance to the practice of ethical justification and communication, as soldiers can now easily and publicly face their critics and expose their own inner turmoil. Therefore, the potential implications of these gameification (or amoralization) processes, which may in and of themselves not be new at all, are certainly newly important, for they are being spread with heretofore unseen speed to those who remain at home and make their own judgments about the battlefield.
Certainly, the current study has a variety of limitations, and points to a number of potential directions for further research to help flesh out the conclusions tentatively posed here. First and foremost, the use of a single blog for analysis can only serve an exploratory function, not a descriptive, quantitative one with easily generalized results. The logical next step for future scholarship, then, would be to expand the current study to see if other blogs fit into this proposed genre of gameification blogging, and analyze such a corpus to see if the strategies of dehumanization, dramatization, and gameification continually appear. In addition to such methodological changes, a variety of theoretical questions can be sparked by the current research, as well. For example, one might seek to compare current U.S. soldiers’ strategies of amoralization or moral justification with those utilized by other soldiers in the past and expressed via journals or letters home; this could shed light on the question of how influential modern videogames have in fact been on the collective psyche of recent generations, or whether similar strategies have always been present. Moreover, scholars could seek to find other amoralization or moral justification strategies within other contemporary U.S. soldiers’ blogs, in order to better analyze both the effectiveness and relative ethicality of gameification. In other words, further scholarship can better address what options of moral justification are actually available to U.S. soldiers to determine whether gameification is the only, or even the best, means of dealing with the ethical complexities of the Iraq War. Finally, scholars could expand the concepts of gameification to media outside of the blogosphere, identifying films, news commentaries, music, or in fact videogames themselves that contribute to an intertextual process of gameifying warfare. This would then, of course, open the door for extensive speculation and commentary regarding the implications of such processes, including what it means to continually reduce the lives of countless humans to the amoral status of a game.
The gameification of the Iraq War as manifested in Armor Geddon provides a compelling commentary on modern society, allowing us to better understand the ways in which U.S. soldiers may in fact utilize the comfortable framework provided by the videogames of their youth to better manage and ameliorate a truly atrocious reality. In a world in which videogames have an increasingly striking ability to persuade us and shape our worldviews (Bogost, 2007), such processes are unsurprising, yet they merit our attention nonetheless. Certainly, the Iraq War is bound to remain controversial for both those at home and on the front lines, and U.S. soldiers will continue to fight to justify their actions to themselves and their critics. As Alinsky’s situational perspective reminds us, however, we must recognize the limited moral opportunities of such soldiers. Therefore, rather than criticize amoralization practices such as gameification, we must instead turn our attention to the unique contextual features and power differentials that have forced such morally questionable warfare, and take note of the effects of such newly public gameification rhetoric. In this way, we can seek to not only better understand the situational ethics surrounding the battlefields in Iraq, but also the ethical justifications required for survival in such an environment, before we can even begin to address the consequences of turning life and death into nothing more than a game.
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